May children attend their father's funeral?

How did the practice emerge for children not to participate in their father’s funeral?

‘JEWISH FUNERAL in Vilnius’ (1824), by Julian Karczewski, National Museum in Warsaw (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘JEWISH FUNERAL in Vilnius’ (1824), by Julian Karczewski, National Museum in Warsaw
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There is a well-known practice within Jerusalem funeral ceremonies that the descendants of a deceased man do not attend the actual burial or, at the very least, do not walk behind the deceased as the procession proceeds to the burial spot.
This practice frequently causes confusion, and at times frustration, as the practice throughout most of the Jewish world is for children to lead the funeral procession. We’ll delineate the rationale behind this practice and question its virtues.
According to rabbinic tradition, participating in a funeral ceremony is a great mitzva. The Sages consider it a great sin to see a funeral without paying basic respects, while promising that those who participate in every stage will merit to have the same done at their own funeral.
Naturally, the people with the greatest responsibilities for burial are the closest relatives. In fact, for this reason, the Torah specifically allows a kohen (priest) to participate in the funeral of his beloved, even though he normally is prohibited from participating in funerals. Within the Torah’s narratives, the paradigm for children mourning for their parents was established with the death of Jacob in Egypt, when his sons actively took care of his burial. Some medieval commentators attribute many of our mourning rituals to the acts of Joseph and his brothers.
This perspective is manifested in many rabbinic sources. The Talmud, for example, asserts that at a parent’s funeral, sons must bare their shoulders by removing their arms from their sleeves, an ancient mourning practice deemed optional for other relatives. More significantly, in both late antiquity and the medieval era, children led the funeral procession. In fact, many sources record the idea that the children bore the mortuary cot on their shoulders. Other practices of children at the cemetery included walking barefoot and tearing their clothing as expressions of mourning. It seems clear that the practice, since biblical times, was for children to engage in all aspects of the funeral procession. This conclusion – affirmed by figures such as rabbis Ben-Zion Uziel, Moshe Feinstein and Shemtob Gaguine – is why most communities in Israel and around the world allow full participation.
How, then, did the practice emerge for children not to participate in their father’s funeral? This question has puzzled many scholars, including Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky. In his authoritative 1947 work on the laws of mourning, Gesher Hahaim, he records this as the bona fide practice of Jerusalem, even as he notes that its origins are mysterious, and that records indicate that specific Jerusalemites began observing this practice only in the late 18th century. The detailed history of this practice was written by the esteemed historian  Prof. Meir Benayahu, following the funeral in 1981 of his father, Sephardi chief rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, in which Benayahu insisted on his right to fully attend the funeral.
Already from at least Geonic times, various practices emerged to chase away evil spirits from harming the deceased before their burial. In the early 16th century, following the Spanish expulsion, a few writers noted a mystical fear relating to damage done through evil spirits connected to the wasted seed (semen) of a person. The most obvious conclusion from this concern, limited to men, was that people should repent for this sin in their lifetime. Others believed that heartfelt eulogies and words of Torah by the deceased’s children would solve the problem. Beyond that, however, a practice emerged to recite various biblical verses while circling the deceased seven times (hakafot) immediately before interment to chase away these spirits. While the custom of hakafot bewildered some scholars, it spread and continues to be practiced by some burial societies.
Another solution, however, emerged in a few 17th-century sources. They urged people to command their descendants (their pure lineage) to attend their funerals and give eulogies, but then leave and not attend the burials, since the impure lineage (the wasted seed) would naturally gravitate to them at the cemetery, thereby risking harm to the deceased before interment. This idea, however, was never declared in the communal ordinances (takanot) of any city. Instead, it was ordered in the last will and testament of a range of scholars, including well-known figures such as Rabbi Yosef Molcho, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger and R. Hayim Medini. Others proposed different solutions, such as their children not coming within four cubits of their corpses. This sentiment of mystical piety, however, was never made in any communal enactments, nor was it observed by all scholars, even as it began to be recorded in various halachic works.
Consequently, Tucazinsky noted that one should not protest those who refuse to follow this relatively new practice. This tolerance was similarly extended by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef regarding burials in Jerusalem of Diaspora Jews (Yabia Omer YD 4:27). Some burial societies have now compromised by allowing the children to walk in front of the procession or, at the very least, to go ahead to the burial spot so they may be present for the final interment.
As Benayahu forcefully argued, there is no reason for this practice to be imposed on those who prefer to follow the traditional practice of full participation. It is regrettable that Jerusalem burial societies do not show greater respect for those who want to follow in the ways of Joseph and his brothers. And it is quite simply bewildering that this option is not available in the Eretz Hachaim Cemetery outside Beit Shemesh, which is not in Jerusalem and caters exclusively to foreigners whose communities follow the traditional practice. I call upon groups such as AACI, Yeshiva University alumni and the Rabbinical Council of America to demand that their members be told they have the option of following the conventional tradition.
The writer, a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School, is the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute.